Perhaps the most famous collaboration between actress Sarah Bernhardt and playwright Victorien Sardou was on the 1887 play, La Tosca. Although La Tosca has not been performed for several decades, it shall forever be remembered because of Giacomo Puccini’s operatic version.
Set in Italy before the Napoleonic Wars, the story is about an opera singer named Floria Tosca and her lover, Mario Cavaradossi. Cavaradossi is imprisoned after helping a political prisoner escape. Tosca attempts to save his life by confronting Baron Vitellio Scarpia. Scarpia agrees to call off the execution if Tosca will sleep with him. She agrees but then stabs him. After Tosca arrives at the prison to witness Cavaradossi’s mock execution, she realizes Scarpia tricked her and her lover is actually dead. In desperation, she throws herself off the parapet of Castel Sant’Angelo.
When La Tosca received its first performance on November 24, 1887, Bernhardt was 43 years old: a perfect age for a mature, temperamental opera singer. By that point in her career, Bernhardt was France’s hottest commodity and, therefore, Sardou’s ticket for success. Although the critics as well as the audience were horrified by the play’s sexual themes and grotesque use of torture, murder, and suicide, all were positively stunned by the leading lady’s performance. In fact, the audience was more interested in Bernhardt than in the author. Because of Bernhardt, La Tosca received 129 performances in Paris alone and the first run did not close until March 25, 1888. Bernhardt and several other members of the original cast then took the play to England, Australia, and even Egypt.
Sardou had been accused of plagiarism both before and after the play’s premiere. One of Sardou’s accusers was none other than Maurice Barrymore. Barrymore claimed that, in 1885, he had given Bernhardt a copy of his play titled Nadjezda and that she in turn had given it to Sardou. Although Bernhardt claimed, under oath, that she had never even seen a copy of the play, it is quite likely that she lied and, in reality, had Nadjezda in her possession for at least two years. Either way, Nadjezda bears little resemblance to La Tosca. Also, Barrymore made the major mistake of not copyrighting his work before he allegedly gave it to Bernhardt.
Sardou was grateful for Bernhardt’s help and, more importantly, for the artistry she brought to his play. While describing her portrayal, he once said “…she has far exceeded anything that has been done in our generation”.
While performing La Tosca in Brazil in 1905, Bernhardt injured her right knee after landing wrong during the final jump from the parapet. The severity of the injury and her refusal to rest led to the amputation of her right leg in 1915.
Source: Huret, Jules “Sarah Bernhardt”